A New Type Of Gentrification

Melody Rollins is no stranger to success. Soon after graduating with an M.B.A. from MIT’s Sloan School of Business in 2001, she landed a job in New York City as an account manager at PIMCO, a portfolio management and investment strategy firm, making $150,000. When she was promoted to senior vice president in 2006, her salary increased to more than $500,000 a year. Rollins lives on 20% of her income annually and saves and invests the rest in mutual funds and stocks, but more importantly, she donates 15% to nonprofit organizations in her Harlem community.

“When I relocated to PIMCO’s New York office in 2002 from California, I knew I wanted to live in a black community and help kids with their career and life choices,” says Rollins, 35, who grew up in a lower-middle-class family outside of San Francisco. “Plus, I didn’t want to be one of the many who move to Harlem only to take advantage of relatively less expensive real estate while ignoring the existing community,” adds Rollins, referring to the ongoing gentrification of Harlem, famously marked by former President Bill Clinton setting up an office on 125th street in 2001.

Soon after moving to Harlem in 2005, Rollins began looking for an organization within the community where she could donate her time and money. Her search led her to Future Leaders Institute Charter School. Founded in 1999, Future Leaders Institute welcomes 300 kindergarten through eighth-grade students. Almost every eighth-grader goes on to boarding school, private school, or a selective top-tier public high school in New York City. That’s a pretty good track record but not a total surprise to Rollins, who immediately recognized the school’s potential when she was searching for volunteer opportunities.

“Their passion and vision for the students made the difference for me,” says Rollins. In addition to being the first African American member of the school’s board, Rollins is co-chair of the development committee, founder of the school’s leadership council, and a member of its grievance committee, which gives her a chance to hear from parents. “I think seeing a face like theirs represented puts them at ease,” says Rollins, pointing out that about 97% of the students are black.

Rollins has learned that parents are in need of just as much support as the students. Last year, when an eighth-grader was accepted to a competitive New England boarding school, one of the high school placement officers spent three months trying to convince the child’s mother to let the student attend. When Rollins discovered the reason for her hesitation, she was moved. “The mother said, ‘He’ll think he’s better than us,'” recalls Rollins, but she eventually granted permission. This was a challenging experience that made Rollins aware of nonacademic hurdles in the high school admissions process. She responded by proposing a $176,200 high school placement fund so that the school could hire additional staff to help parents and students navigate the admissions process.

“As a business-minded person, I want to make my money work well,” says Rollins.